Thinking About Gary Gallagher’s Union

I just finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War, which in some ways functions as a companion volume to The Confederate War – published back in 1997.  Both studies offer highly readable critiques of a wide swath of Civil War historiography with an eye toward pointing out gaps in the literature.  In the earlier study that gap was a tendency to ignore the extent to which white Southerners forged a national identity around such military icons as Robert E. Lee.  Gallagher asked readers to think beyond the question of why the South lost and explore how the Confederacy managed to resist a concerted effort on the part of the United States to reunite the nation for four long years as well as how it managed to come close to independence on more than one occasion.  That opening in the historiography has been filled by Gallagher’s own graduate students and others, who have given us a much richer picture of nation building in the South.

In The Union War, Gallagher’s historiographic critique brings into sharp relief our tendency to minimize and even ignore the meaning that Northerners attached to Union.  In my opinion there is no one better at distilling academic debates for a general audience.  Gallagher devotes some of his sharpest criticisms to historians such as Chandra Manning and Barbara Field, who suggest that the massive amount of bloodshed could only be justified with emancipation and the end of slavery.  On the contrary, Gallagher argues that this runs rough shod over the the meaning of Union to the vast majority of Americans who rallied around the flag and Lincoln’s call to arms.  As in his previous study, Gallagher devotes a great deal of time to the importance that Americans attached to the army as a symbol of the nation and to the citizen-soldier, who exemplified its strong sense of sacrifice and patriotism.  At the center of this stood Ulysses S. Grant, who has been all but lost to our collective memory of the war.

I tend to agree with Gallagher’s broad assessment that the meaning of Union to the Civil War generation has lost its hold on our generation.  As I was reading through the book I found myself reflecting on the gaps in my own understanding of nationalism and Union in the North.  The concept seems abstract as compared to our tendency to root the Confederate cause in more tangible factors such as defense of home, “way of life”, slavery, etc.

I also couldn’t help but reflect on the shape of our public discourse between devotion to state and nation during the Civil War era.  Perhaps we draw much too sharp a distinction between the two.  We equate the South with states rights and the North with Union.  It implies almost a natural tendency to one or the other depending on where you were born even though white Southerners could be just as easily found appealing to nation and the power of the federal government as Northerners were to the importance of the state and states rights throughout the Antebellum Era.  Just look at the debate over the Fugitive Slave Act in 1851.

If I sound a bit confused it’s because I am.  Was Winfield Scott less devoted to his state than Robert E. Lee and, vice versa, was Scott more devoted to the Union than Lee in 1861?  Consider Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s recent essay at the NYTs Disunion blog in which she explores a newly-uncovered letter by Mary Custis Lee about R.E. Lee’s decision to resign his military commission in 1861:

These are riveting details. But what is most striking about this description is the loneliness of Lee’s decision. For the stunning message of Mary Custis Lee’s account is that that there was no pressure from kin or colleagues for Lee to give up the allegiances of a lifetime. Some would later become dedicated Confederates, but in April 1861 their feelings were with the Union. If even his wife, and most of his children, did not support his stand, Robert E. Lee must personally have wanted very much to take this path. This was not an answer he was compelled by home and heritage to make. It was a choice — and it was his alone.

Contrary to D.S. Freeman, this was not a decision that Lee was born to make unless we are willing to interpret his decision in a vacuum cut off from everyone else who had a similar choice to make. Do we really believe that this simply boils down to a simplistic calculus of nation v. state?  Were Southern Unionists more emotionally invested in the idea of nation and union than their neighbors who happened to vote for secession?  It’s not so clear to me anymore.   At the same time, can we say with a straight face that the secessionist loved his state more than the unionist?

I finished Gallagher’s book disappointed in the fact that we have lost an appreciation for and an understanding of why millions of Americans believed it was worth sacrificing to save what Lincoln referred to as the “last best hope of earth.”  These were not just words.  That we have a need to equate the war’s overall meaning and significance with emancipation perhaps tells us more about our needs than it does about how the vast majority of Americans at the time viewed it.  At the same time I wonder if we too easily dismiss strong feelings of patriotism and union in the South at the beginning of the war.  Given the speed at which the nation reunited by the early twentieth century and regardless of the bitterness and hatred that ensued once the fighting commenced, perhaps those “mystic chords of memory” were not entirely severed.

[Note: I apologize if this post has a rambling quality to it.]

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13 comments… add one
  • TF Smith Apr 27, 2011 @ 6:36

    Late to the discussion, but along with the “Union first” points made above, I think there veery well could be a generational element here. Remember the age of some of the senior decision-makers (and hence, influencers) in the US; although the revolutionary/Constitutional Convention generation had passed away, the men who came of age in the first two decades of the 19th Century had first-hand experience with the US as a weak nation arrayed against European powers, had seen Jackson face-off against the nullifiers, of the US becoming a continental power, and had seen the battles over extension of slavery into the territories. I’m thinking of men like Scott, Sumner, Dix, Blair, etc, who have since been eclipsed by the Civil War generation but who were certainly influential to the men of Lincoln’s generation and, by extension, the men who followed Fremont, Lincoln, Seward, Butler, etc.

    It is worth considering the number of senior decision-makers in the “Union” cause who were born in the 18th Century…


  • Charles Bowery Apr 27, 2011 @ 4:48

    If I recall correctly, McPherson makes a related point in _For Cause and Comrades_- that preservation of the Union, not the abolition of slavery, was a primary motivational factor for many Union soldiers.

    Great post, as always. Best of luck in Boston. I’m jealous, it looks like a great place to live.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2011 @ 4:51

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks for the kind words. Gallagher references McPherson a couple of times and makes that very point, but notes that the issue is not explored to any extent. McPherson tends to fall back into the popular narrative of Union to Emancipation.

  • Rob in CT Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:57

    Interesting. I was (today) reading excerpts (google books sample) of Manning’s book and it doesn’t seem that he minimizes the preservation of the Union as a huge factor for Union soldiers, nor does he appear to divide abolition and union preservation into distinct buckets. Rather, he points out that many Union soldiers came to be abolitionists not because they were in favor of black/white equality but rather because they saw slavery as the cause of the war and the inevitable cause of a 2nd war if it were not stamped out. Preserving the Union (the Union as they knew it, of course) was still #1, but they came to see abolition as a necessary part of doing that.

    That’s what I got from my (admittedly partial) read of Manning.

    • Michael in PA Feb 17, 2012 @ 17:26

      I’m joining this discussion REALLY late but I just read the Union War and I wanted to share my thoughts on your comment Rob in CT. You are correct that Chandra Manning does not argue that emancipation became the number 1 motivation for fighting. No historian to my knowledge disputes this- Gallagher seems to be touting the scholarly consensus. He doesn’t really add anything new to our understanding of the Union cause either. Gallagher would have served his purpose better if his research actually deepened or changed our understanding of the Union a little bit rather than chastise historians who didn’t write the book that he would have written.

  • Richard Apr 24, 2011 @ 15:35

    I haven’t read the book yet, but from this discussion I wonder how does Lincoln’s Second Inaugural fit into this discussion, especially the line “All knew this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.”

    That comment (with slavery clearly being “that cause”) can lead a reader to think that Lincoln had evolved in his thinking in terms of the importance of slavery to the war. Earlier in this speech, he does mention his first inaugural and how it was “devoted altogether to saving the Union without war”, but if Lincoln’s thinking 4 years later led him to publicly acknowledge that slavery caused the war, could that at least be an explanation of why the concept of Union as understood at that time may be less understood now? If Lincoln, as the war was ending, prioritized slavery and the debate over it – either to extend and prolong it or to prohibit its extension – as the cause of the war, why would not readers of that speech feel that was a shared sentiment at the time?

    Of course, maybe I am wrong in listing slavery and emancipation as being almost synonymous in this discussion; Lincoln, after all, technically did not mention “emancipation” but I still feel it is not a mistake to lump slavery and emancipation togehter, almost as one and the same.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 24, 2011 @ 16:48

      Gallagher does not deny that Lincoln and even many soldiers evolved in their understanding of slavery and, to a lesser extent, race relations. What I understand him saying is that slavery never eclipsed the preservation of the Union as the primary goal of the war. Suggesting that slavery caused secession does not challenge the claim that what Lincoln desired from first to last was Union. The end of slavery helped to make it possible to save the Union.

  • Paul Taylor Apr 24, 2011 @ 4:42

    “That we have a need to equate the war’s overall meaning and significance with emancipation perhaps tells us more about our needs than it does about how the vast majority of Americans at the time viewed it.”

    Kevin – A very good point that I agree with. Being known as an abolitionist in the antebellum north and even when the war began was certainly no badge of honor to most people. For the most part, they were considered cranks by the wide middle of Union politics. And, of course, we all know of Lincoln’s sentiments pertaining to preservation of the Union vis a vis emancipation when the war commenced. Paul

    • Kevin Levin Apr 24, 2011 @ 4:54

      Thanks Paul. If I understand Gallagher correctly, his problem with recent studies (especially Chandra Manning and Barbara Fields) that place slavery at the center of the war’s meaning is that they are too far detached from Americans understanding of Union. In other words, at the center of this increased focus on slavery and emancipation was the belief that it would help to preserve the Union. The popular meme of “A War that began with the goal of preserving the Union, but was later eclipsed by Emancipation” ignores the place of Union throughout. It was never eclipsed and it may even be a mistake, according to Gallagher, to suggest that it had become supplemented by emancipation.

  • Bob Pollock Apr 23, 2011 @ 18:05


    I agree that the importance and meaning of the Union to so many 19th century Americans has been almost completely overshadowed by the slavery/emancipation issue. In part, this is because we have to constantly counter the argument that slavery had nothing to do with the war.
    I think I have said this in comments on this blog in the past. Also, though, somehow emancipation seems to be seen as a better justification for the war than the preservation of the Union; as if preservation of the Union alone would have been an insufficient cause.

    I don’t know that this is true though: “At the center of this stood Ulysses S. Grant, who has been all but lost to our collective memory of the war.” Is this what Gallagher says? What is the evidence for this?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 24, 2011 @ 1:24

      Gallagher seems to want to suggest that emancipation has come to justify the level of bloodshed, in part, because we fail to appreciate the significance of Union to Americans during the 1860s. Regarding Grant and our collective memory, all I am pointing out is G’s reliance on Joan Waugh’s interpretation of Grant’s importance to Americans both during and after the war. Thanks for the comment.

  • Patrick Lewis Apr 23, 2011 @ 7:03

    I’m really not sure how I feel about this new one. I wasn’t a fan of the Confederate War, I think a more inclusive picture of the Confederacy (a la Stephanie McCurry) is necessary to write a book with such a broad title. Likewise this one. It seems quite simple to claim the unimportance of race, slavery, and emancipation for the middle while excluding the political left and right from the equation entirely. (My own biases are present here, working on a state where proslavery Unionists and slaves seeking emancipation and citizenship rights made up the whole of the Union cause)

    My real concern here, though, is not the historiographical argument that Gallagher is making to scholars. My concern is how his critique — chastisement really — of the emancipation narrative will play in the general readership. The review in the Washington Post ( for example, underscores my fear that this will give carte blanche — endorsed a leading voice of this historiographical generation and the HUP, no less — to close their ears to any discussion of the emancipation narrative as “politically correct twaddle.” Regardless of its impact on future scholarship, I fear that this has potential to be a public history disaster at the dawn of the 150s.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2011 @ 7:10

      Thanks for the comment, Patrick. I don’t think Gallagher is suggesting that slavery and emancipation are unimportant, but that they have come to eclipse the importance of Union and the way in which the former depended on the latter. It’s impossible to determine how the book will be interpreted by certain parties, but it is going to be impossible to draw your conclusion without having read the book. Another way to put it is that Gallagher is offering a sketch of how a wide selection of Northerners understood the transition to emancipation by 1863 and the extent to which is was woven into the goal of preserving the Union.

      I also enjoyed McCurry’s book, but one could argue that her understanding of Confederate defeat from the inside-out was rather narrow.

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